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How To Create An Arthritis-Inclusive Workplace & Why?

October 17, 2023 thehrobserver-hrobserver-inclusiveworkplace

Arthritis transcends age, gender, and profession. In the dynamic work environment of the UAE, where residents may be juggling demanding schedules and responsibilities, arthritis is an invisible ailment and a leading cause of workplace disability. While it may not be immediately apparent, data indicates that approximately 1 in 5 of the UAE population grapples with arthritis, which makes it inevitable in the workplace. Despite its prevalence, awareness about arthritis in the UAE remains limited. 

Almost two-thirds (64%) of adults under the age of 65 are affected by arthritis, highlighting that a significant portion of individuals with arthritis are actively employed and must effectively juggle the demands of their condition with their professional careers. The lack of awareness often leads to delayed diagnosis and treatment. At the workplace, this can result in a lack of empathy from employers and co-workers. 

According to the World Health Organisation, 18  million people were living with rheumatoid arthritis as of 2019. With such a significant number of people affected it is imperative that companies retain talented employees with arthritis, enabling employers to utilize their expertise to rebuild even more robustly.

The Impact on Work Performance

Arthritis, with its telltale symptoms of joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, casts a long shadow over the professional lives of those affected by it. Mornings become a daunting hurdle as the body is stiff and swollen due to lack of movement during the night. The simplest of tasks, like typing an email or getting up from a chair, can be painful ordeals. 

Professionals who battle arthritis face a unique set of challenges that extend well beyond physical discomfort. For instance, certain types of arthritis, like Rheumatoid arthritis, predominantly affect young women who grapple with the intricate task of balancing their work responsibilities along with their various roles, which include caring for their family and children, managing household chores, and holding down a full-time job. It’s a silent struggle that often unfolds behind office doors, out of sight but ever-present. Research indicates over 50% of people with rheumatoid arthritis cease working within ten years of diagnosis, with those enjoying more job autonomy and flexibility tending to remain employed longer.

Implications for Professional Productivity

So much of what we do in a modern workplace is based on hand function. If an employee’s hands don’t function properly, mundane work tasks such as typing on a keyboard, holding a pen, answering the phone, or even standing for extended periods can become huge obstacles when joint stiffness or pain is a constant companion.

It’s important to recognise that each individual’s experience with arthritis is unique. Some may exhibit mild symptoms that minimally impact their work life, while others may struggle to complete a workday or even make it to work at all. Frequent absences and diminished productivity can hinder career advancement, necessitate job changes, or even lead to early retirement. Additionally, pushing through work when feeling unwell (referred to as “presenteeism”) can result in reduced productivity. Nonetheless, it’s essential to understand that the condition doesn’t have to be a roadblock to career development when treated properly. 

What are the strategies to create an arthritis-inclusive workplace?

With the right strategies and support systems, employees can effectively manage arthritis and continue to excel in their careers. Employers and employees alike can play a vital role in creating a more inclusive and supportive work environment.

Flexible Work Arrangements: Employers can facilitate more flexible work arrangements to accommodate professionals with arthritis. For example, many jobs require employees to be at a desk for 8 to 10 hours a day. As physical activity is the cornerstone of arthritis management, those affected need to take breaks to perform low-impact exercises to alleviate joint pain and stiffness during the day. 

Options such as remote work, adjusted hours, modified duties, altered break times or part-time schedules can make a huge difference for employees battling pain and stiffness, especially in physically taxing jobs. These arrangements not only enhance the work-life balance but also contribute to increased job satisfaction and productivity.

Ergonomics in the Workplace: For professionals dealing with arthritis, workplace ergonomics plays a pivotal role. Simple modifications to workstations and environments can make a substantial difference. Adjustable chairs, ergonomic keyboards, computer stands, footrests and standing desks can help reduce strain on joints, making daily tasks more manageable.

Added benefits: Companies can ensure the availability of essential medications for employees living with arthritis under the company’s benefits plan. Additional support can encompass paid sick days, additional time off, or flexible scheduling to accommodate specialist appointments. 

Open conversation: Employers can nurture an inclusive environment for employees with arthritis by initiating and maintaining open conversations regarding their specific needs and challenges. Creating a safe space for dialogue enables employees to communicate their requirements and constraints freely, allowing employers to understand and implement necessary adaptations and supports, ensuring a conducive working atmosphere.

The majority of these accommodations cost a business close to nothing. Even the expense of ergonomic equipment is a one-time investment, which can lead to long-term savings.

Thriving with Arthritis

Arthritis is not a roadblock to success but rather an opportunity for resilience and adaptation. As awareness grows and support systems like the UAE’s Middle East Arthritis Foundation strengthen, professionals affected by arthritis can thrive in their careers. Establishing arthritis-inclusive workplaces is crucial in the UAE’s dynamic work environment, especially considering the prevalent, yet often invisible, ailment that significantly impacts the professional and personal lives of a considerable portion of the population.

Through flexible work arrangements, ergonomic adaptations, comprehensive benefits, and fostering open conversations, employers can constructively support employees, optimising productivity and retention amidst the challenges presented by arthritis.

Author
Dr. Bhavna Khan

Consultant Rheumatologist

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